12 April 2013

Ontology for Ontology’s Sake: Object-Oriented Philosophy as Poetic Metaphysics

When asked if the object-oriented approach has grown out of a crisis in contemporary philosophy (in an interview given in early 2012), Graham Harman responds by citing J. G. Ballard’s description of the task of the modern writer, which he paraphrases as follows:
‘The role of the imaginative writer has flipped in our time. Previously, the imaginative writer was supposed to produce fictions. However, we’re now completely surrounded by fictions - we’re surrounded by advertisements, by artificial environments... The role of the author now is to create realities, or to discover realities perhaps.’
Harman often talks about literature’s unique capacity to apprehend and manifest a reality that is not visible to less oblique methods of apprehension (‘reality itself is not an explicit proposition’ he opines in the same interview, ‘the only way to get at reality is to be able to allude, to hint, to suggest’) and it is in just such an oblique manner that this somewhat nonchalant allusion to the words of an eminent science fiction writer tell us more about the cut of object-oriented philosophy than some of its more didactic textual instantiations arguably do. From an important yet implicit alignment between the literary and philosophical task, Harman constructs a metaphor in which the proponents of post-structuralism figure as the ‘imaginative writers’ of a previous era busily engaged in the production and proliferation of fictions, while the philosopher of contemporary realism bravely steps up to mitigate this insufferable surfeit by undertaking, instead, to biographise the real. The slippage, in the final sentence, between create and discover is perhaps the most telling element of all.

Object-oriented philosophy is not shy about proclaiming its realist orientation and Harman rarely misses an opportunity to rail against the injustices of ‘correlationism’ in his texts. But is Harman’s position really as anti-correlationist as it might at first appear? This, I would suggest, comes down to the difference between creating and discovering the real. 

Rejection of Epistemology as First Philosophy

Whatever conclusion one draws about the validity of speculative materialism, Meillassoux’s strategy is exemplary in its attempt to confront Kant on epistemological terms. After all, this was the Critique of Pure Reason’s brilliant maneouvre - to transfer the dispute between dogmatic rationalism and empirical scepticism onto epistemological terrain, a context (inspired by the latter) in which Kant could then reconstruct a philosophical position capable of satisfying the demands of a new critical methodology. Consequently, the legacy of finitude is first and foremost an epistemological problem and it does no good to forget that one of the most important objectives of the first Critique was to purge philosophy of spurious metaphysical constructions that cannot furnish a proper epistemological foundation for whatever it is they claim. By engaging Kant’s legacy on its own terms and attacking it at its strongest point, speculative materialism discovers an epistemological loophole that opens onto the real. The path it locates between the for-us and the in-itself, or the phenomenal and the real, is necessarily one cleaved by knowledge.

Despite fervent declarations of anti-correlationism or of ‘reversing Kant’s Copernican Revolution’, Harman seems to deal with epistemology very little. He only ever tackles the subject briefly and indirectly, anecdotally even - alluding here and there to Stove’s Gem as a general refutation of strong varieties of idealism or rallying Socrates’ solution to Meno’s paradox against idealism’s weaker iterations, before topping it off with a reminder (native to pre-critical philosophy) that philosophical work as philosophia means love, not possession, of wisdom.

Like correlationism, object-oriented philosophy begins with an affirmation of the epistemological limit: we can never know the reality of the objects we encounter. Like speculative materialism, object-oriented philosophy then radicalises the correlationist position, but where speculative materialism pushes finitude into a positive epistemological premise, object-oriented philosophy simply extends finitude beyond the bounds of the human to bestow it democratically upon everything. However, this extension of negativity cannot occur without mobilising a series of metaphysical assertions. Namely, that nonhuman objects encounter other objects as sensual objects (following a consummately human model), and that all objects have a real, transcendent core that withdraws from access. Rather than presenting a means by which this failure of knowledge might be overcome, object-oriented philosophy simply relocates the finitude of the human subject to the object (or from the real object to the sensual object that it relates to with sincerity, in Harman’s schema) where it becomes an essential property, and thereby quietly switches an epistemological assertion for a metaphysical, ontological one. What begins as a negative epistemological claim about the human subject becomes a positive metaphysical claim about the object. But if the real posited by object-oriented philosophy is epistemologically and causally withdrawn, how can positive claims about it (for even positive negative claims are positive claims) be made without straying into dogmatism?

Harman answers Kant on one level by demoting the status of the human-world relation to that of all relations, but he neglects the principal challenge of the first Critique by doing so without first furnishing the epistemological means necessary to arrive at this conclusion. If one is to credit his claim of anti-correlationism then it must be conceded that object-oriented philosophy is also dogmatic (dogmatism, of course, being one way of kicking the Copernican Revolution into reverse), alternatively, object-oriented philosophy can eschew the charge of dogmatism insofar as it admits that it remains a correlationist position. As Peter Wolfendale has so astutely put it, ‘[w]hen it is properly understood, Harman’s work should be seen not as a critique of correlationism, but a consolidation of its central tenets.’ (293)

If object-oriented philosophy ignores the Kantian injunction and plunges brashly down the passageway to the real it is because it maintains that, even though the core of an object withdraws from all access, something of its reality is traceable under particular conditions, only these conditions are not epistemological, they are aesthetic.

Aesthetics as First Philosophy

Harman contends that it is possible to circumvent the correlationist argument that ‘it is impossible to think the outside of thought without turning it into a thought’ by means of ‘allure’. In The Quadruple Object he writes:

‘The choice is not just between speaking of something or not speaking of it. We all know a way of speaking of a thing without quite speaking of it; namely, we allude to it. Allusion occurs in thinking no less than in speaking. To say “the tree that lies outside thinking” is neither a successful statement about a thought nor a failed statement about a thing. Instead, it is an allusion to something that might be real but which cannot become fully present.’ (68)

Allure, as a mode of apprehension of the real, operates something like Heidegger’s broken hammer (in accordance with the model outlined in Harman’s realist reading of the tool-analysis). In order to apprehend something of an object’s real core, one must experience the detachment of its real, unified essence from its phenomenal accidents. When it surprises us by coming to pieces in our hands, something that exceeds the hammer’s phenomenal presence makes itself apparent specifically by not being explicable in terms of the object’s phenomenal instantiation. Allure is thus a modality of failure: in failing to capture the real, allusion forces it to separate from certain sensual qualities, momentarily generating a negative image of the unified, real object. Harman elaborates on this occurrence in ‘On Vicarious Causation’, where he also explicitly locates the operation of allure in metaphor:
‘In the sensual realm, we encounter objects encrusted with noisy accidents and relations. We may also be explicitly aware of some of their essential qualities, though any such list merely transforms the qualities into something accident-like, and fails to give us the unified bond that makes the sensual thing a single thing. Instead, we need an experience in which the sensual object is severed from its joint unified quality since this will point for the first time to a real object lying beneath the single quality on the surface. For humans, metaphor is one such experience. When the poet writes “my heart is a furnace,” the sensual object known as a heart captures vaguely defined furnace-qualities and draws them haltingly into its orbit. The inability of the heart to fuse easily with furnace-traits (in contrast with literal statements such as “my heart is the strongest muscle in my body”) achieves allusion to a ghostly heart-object lying beneath the overly familiar sensual heart of everyday acquaintance.’ (199-200)
Alongside metaphor, Harman also locates the operation of allure in beauty, hypnotic experience, and cuteness under the rubric of ‘charm’. Charm designates a genre of allure that occurs in sympathy with the object, while ‘humour’ (charm’s counterpart), engages the object from a position of superiority, entailing ‘some form of mild or serious disdain’. Each of these styles of relation, functioning under the category of allure-operations, provides a conduit between the sensual and the real in a way that knowledge is barred from doing (following object-oriented philosophy’s first premise). Allure rises up to replace knowledge as the exemplary instrument of realist discovery. The claim that all objects relate sensually liberates aesthetics from the poverty of the human-world relation and allows it to exist as a potential modality for all object relations. Furthermore, because the real resides at the heart of every object and necessarily withdraws from access, allure furnishes the sole means of communion between real objects; it is the singular occasion in which real objects might ‘touch without touching’. Aesthetics, then, not only absorbs epistemology, it absorbs causality as well. One might pause here to note that this usurpation of the task of epistemology by aesthetics is underwritten by the two errant metaphysical assertions cited above.

Speculation Without Epistemology

When epistemology is exchanged for aesthetics in the pursuit of metaphysics, philosophical thought must follow by becoming literary. For some, this is precisely the appeal of the object-oriented approach, however, harking back to Harman’s paraphrase of Ballard, is object-oriented philosophy really doing what it is telling us it is doing? Do the structures that form the foundation of object-oriented philosophy allow it to ‘discover the real’, or is it just ‘producing more fictions’? What is speculation without epistemology, if not speculative fiction?

The claim about essential withdrawal opens up a vast space for speculation which, because it is constructed on an aesthetic foundation alone, curiously, has human imagination as its only limit, unchecked or unguided by any positive principle that might lead it outside of the negativity it has housed itself in. For Harman, speculation equates roughly to metaphysics - as long as one refuses to be confined by Kantian prohibitions on knowledge, one is speculating. Meillassoux’s definition of speculation, however, is quite different. One way of looking at it is to say that the former practices speculation in the weak sense, while the latter practices it in the strong sense.

For Meillassoux, speculative activity is constituted by a ‘non-correlational mode of knowing,’ which does not necessarily infer a metaphysical standpoint. (After Finitude, 119, italics added) In fact, he deliberately keeps metaphysics and speculation separate, defining the factial as ‘the very arena for speculation that excludes all metaphysics' (in accordance with the precision that metaphysics either posits a necessary entity or relies on the principle of sufficient reason to access the absolute). (128) Thus, for the speculative materialist, the speculative act is buoyed up by the absolute possibility that any theory entertained about the in-itself is potentially absolutely true. Mounted, thus, from the epistemological foundation that Meillassoux has carefully and painstakingly laid (via the deduction of factiality), the speculative act attains an unprecedented level of gravity that just does not hold true (in comparable terms) in the context of object-oriented philosophy. Rather than constructing a positive epistemological entry-point into the real that can then be used to shore up further claims, ontological or otherwise, object-oriented philosophy affirms epistemological negativity and then proceeds to flip it into a positive ontological claim about the in-itself. This is its speculative activity in a nutshell. But while the premise of epistemological finitude is entirely uncontroversial, its construal as a positive, realist metaphysics is much less so. To reiterate, attempting to go beyond critique without first positing an epistemological structure either misses the Kantian point or skirts dangerously close to dogmatism. As we have seen, object-oriented philosophy attempts to resolve this problem by asserting that the speculative activity proper to its position is anchored in aesthetics, not epistemology. Nevertheless, speculation without genuine epistemological reinforcement is simply fiction: the creation of the real, rather than its discovery.

Take the epistemological pressure off Harman’s metaphysics and his schema thrives as a fantastic narrative about the world and how it works; one that does not so much confront human finitude as use it to re-enchant the world. Such enchantment thrives in the poetic space opened up by the collapse of the dream of the logical or divine language (the one underwriting its correspondence to the real with rational precision, the other with the guarantee of a necessary entity) and it could be said, by way of a brute simplification, that the poetry of the modern era can be understood in terms of either a celebration or a mourning of this loss. Object-oriented philosophy, in responding to finitude by attributing it to everything and cordoning-off the real so that nothing can be known of it (and anything can be said of it) is committing the modern poetic act par excellence - and rallying all philosophy to do the same. Harman might spare the humanities from ‘finger-wagging lectures [...] on behalf of science’ but the inverse is not true, for the theory of vicarious causation (as allure) casually reduces the sciences to fiction on behalf of the humanities, berating them for making a methodologically misguided attempt on a truth they can never discover. Everything it touches turns to literature, and yet, object-oriented philosophy continues to proclaim its overcoming of the linguistic turn. Without a legitimate epistemological foundation, the ‘speculative turn’ it espouses, if it is anything, is poetropic.

Adopting Harman’s ‘hyperbolic method’ in which one ‘imagines the complete triumph of a philosopher, focusing on virtues rather than vices’ and asking ourselves ‘[w]hat would still be missing from philosophy if this particular thinker were to triumph completely?’ we return, finally, to the opening metaphor between philosophy and literature to find that it cannot be made at all, for there is no longer any philosophy.

 Amy Ireland, Sydney, 2013

Harman, Graham. ‘The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism.’ New Literary History (2012) 43: 183-203.
-------. The Quadruple Object. Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2011.
-------. Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.  
-------. ‘On Vicarious Causation.’ Collapse (2007) II: 409.
-------. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Chicago: Open Court, 2005.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum, 2008.
Wolfendale, Peter. ‘The Noumenon’s New Clothes: Part 1.’ Speculations (2012) III: 290-366.

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